Benjamin Franklin's One Liner

One of my favorite quotes from the American Revolution is by Ben Franklin. Or so I thought.

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The True Benjamin Franklin
Sydney George Fisher
One blogger cited the quote as coming from Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, a book written in 1818 by his grandson, William Temple Franklin. I can’t find it in there. I did searches on the word safety, deserve, liberty, etc.  These words were used plenty of times when writing about the American’s quest for liberty, but never in a sentence that even resembled the quote.

Still, it’s such an awesome quote, don’t you think? Such an appropriate debate for the times, then and now.

But context is everything, and I hate not knowing the details.

I ran across this exact quote again when I was reading The True Benjamin Franklin, by Sydney  
George Fisher, 1898. Page 352, if you’re curious. It seems that Franklin wrote this during the French and Indian War, around 1755, in a letter to the Pennsylvania Assembly. As usual, the question of taxes to pay for a war was at stake, but the American Revolution wasn’t even a twinkle in the old man’s eye yet.

I don’t profess to grasp the entire meaning of the quote, but here’s the way I read it.

Braddock's Death at the
Battle of Monongahela

Source Wikimedia Common
This work is in the public domain in the United States 
because it's copy write has expired.
At that time, Pennsylvania was owned by the Penns and their lands were exempt from taxes. Parliament wanted to raise taxes on the people of Pennsylvania to pay for the cost of protecting them against the French and their Indian allies. The Assembly of PA, of which Franklin was a member, wanted to tax the Penns. The Penns tried to back the Assembly into a corner by offering land to members of the military. In the end, Franklin and the PA Assembly said “Nothin’ doin’” and rejected their offer.

I’m inclined to think that later authors of the Revolution reused the quote because it was so pithy and sounded so right. But, as my husband wisely said, “He might have said it more than once.” Like a politician repeating a favorite line, I suppose.

IMO, the irony of this quote is not so much the recycling of it, but that Franklin could so soundly reject this offer while he was safely ensconced in Philadelphia, pretty far from the French and their allies. If he actually said it again after potentially signing away his life with the Declaration of Independence, then I have to give him more credit. At that point, it was literally his neck on the block – or in the noose as was the fashion.

I would love to hear what those of you who study history for a living, or who are particularly afflicted with a historical OCD, think about this particular quote and the context in which it was said.

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